The Roots join a reinvigorated Costello on the suave 'Wise Up Ghost'

Blue Note

By Hannah Weiner, For the Daily
Published September 17, 2013

If they both weren’t so hip, the collaboration between a 59-year-old singer-songwriter and a hip-hop band might seem absurdly hilarious. Luckily, Wise Up Ghost, the collaborative album by Elvis Costello and The Roots, features two of the coolest musicians from separate corners of the music industry.

Wise Up Ghost

The Roots and Elvis Costello
Blue Note

The music is smooth, funky, mostly what you’d predict from the combination of their sounds. Suave guitars, Costello’s characteristic vocals, sexy saxophones and driving beats are all reminiscent of a Curtis Mayfield-era soul album. The novelty of the collaboration doesn’t wear off for the entire 56 minutes, so they had to be doing something right.

Career-wise for Costello, the album proves to be imaginative and progressive; pairing up with a black hip-hop band from Philadelphia directs his appeal toward a younger audience. But Costello isn’t entirely new to the world of black music genres: His music has always been laced with reggae and Motown. So for an artist that has been around since the 1970s, this matchup revives his discography after 2010’s mediocre National Ransom. Regardless of whether this choice was purely business or just plain fun, Costello and The Roots made a wise decision. Besides — what else do you do when you’ve been making music as long as these guys have?

The only thing missing that would make Wise Up Ghost stellar: Black Thought’s rap. What the album could be (an experimental concept album like Undun) far exceeds what it actually became. For fans of these two artists, the fantasy of Black Thought’s rhymes atop Costello’s weird lyricism sparked excitement. But after perusing the songs, listeners may feel cheapened, cheated — The Roots’ presence seems less vocal than originally perceived. Costello undeniably outshines the band; in an interview, he claimed outright that it’s not his “hip-hop album.” Which, on some level, pardons the album from its utter lack of transparent hip hop.

However, at some points, Costello enters a hip-hop-esque form of singing; he exaggerates the rhymes on lines like, “Just because I don’t speak the language doesn’t mean I’m blind to the threat / But I thought there was more to forgiveness than we conveniently forget.” Sure, it’s not rapping (that might be a lot to ask of Costello), but it’s charged with a hip-hop attitude, and songs like “Stick Out Your Tongue” and “Refuse To Be Saved” do feature stabbing words and lyric-heavy rhythms. Even the album art makes a nod toward the poeticism of Wise Up Ghost — mimicking the poetry editions of old City Lights book jackets, like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

What’s present on the album: an uninhibited and animated Elvis Costello. Layered atop cinematic swelling strings and sharp syncopated drumbeats, Costello croons poetically about politics, among other topics. The songs are gritty, moody and full of humidity — a thick, instrumental, vintage soul album infused with subtle hip hop. Though, the album as a whole is unremarkable and a far cry from the artists’ genius works, such as The Roots’s Undun or Costello’s My Aim Is True. But for those interested in hearing Costello pontificate over Questlove’s beats, Wise Up Ghost presents a quality product.